(Dual Selection) The Economist
Megachange: The World in 2050

Prepared by Michael Marien


June 2013

Megachange: The World in 2050.  The Economist. Edited by Daniel Franklin (Executive Editor and Business Affairs Editor, The Economist) with John Andrews. London UK: The Economist and Profile Books, 2012, 304p, L15pb.


A broad-ranging survey by past or current Economist editors, seeking “to identify and explore the great trends that are transforming the world… (and) how these developments might shape the world in 2050.”   According to Franklin and Andrews, who also edit the annual The World In… Special Issues (e.g., The World in 2013, Nov 2012, 162p), the authors “tend to paint a picture of progress, in contrast to much of the predictions industry, which likes to wallow in gloom… (however) they see enormous challenges ahead, from managing climate change and controlling conflicts over scarce resources such as water to feeding 9 billion people by 2050 and coping with the multitude of new security threats...Yet the pages that follow are, on the whole, optimistic.  Or, at least confident that with the right policies progress is possible on most fronts.”  (pp. xiii-xiv). The 20 chapters are in four parts:


                  1)      People and Relationships

      World Population.  Increasing faster than ever before in history, to over 9 billion by 2050, with “astounding” growth in some countries such as Nigeria and declines in others; “of the 2.3 billion increase in the world’s population between 2010 and 2050, about half will be in Africa” (p4); this older, larger population will be much more urbanized (nearly 70% by 2050).

     Health.   There will be stunning advances in health care in coming decades, and many new challenges; “Napoleonic micro-organisms seeking world domination will be helped by an ever more connected world” (p.26); “the question is not whether a new pandemic will emerge, but when and how the world will respond” (p.27); health systems in both rich and poor countries must be strengthened and insurance expanded—but even then tackling problems of aging and chronic and infectious diseases will be difficult.

    Women.  Prospects are hard to sum up in a simple formula: women in the rich world have achieved equality in principle and improvements will be at the margins; in the poor countries, nothing much will change until education for both girls and boys improves; in the more advanced emerging markets, “Women will enjoy exceptional opportunities over the next few decades” (p.49).

   Friendships.  In the “social supercloud,” social media services reinforce links between people on and off the web; collective intelligence will seem commonplace by 2050, when “we will all be living in what amounts to a socialized state in which our online networks of friends are available to us wherever we are” (p.59); privacy issues will become even more fraught in coming decades, but there has already been a shift toward greater openness online.

    Cultural Revolutions.  Globalization and technology will have their cultural impact, but tastes will remain stubbornly local: “what has not happened is the death of cultural distance” (p.63); discusses the art market, cinema, the changing music industry, the news business (gatekeepers vs. media mayhem: “gatekeepers will remain”) and the dominance of the English language (expected to remain on top) as half of the world’s 7,000 languages are expected to die in the next 100 years.


                    2)      Heaven and Earth

   Religion.  Barring the return of a messiah, today’s patterns of religious beliefs will continue much as they are; Islam has grown from 12.3% of world population in 1900 to 21.1% a century later, due to a population explosion in Muslim countries, and is projected to by 28% by 2050, in contrast to 35% for Christianity (about the same level as in 1900); large numbers have abandoned belief in God, with a global total of at least 500 million unbelievers (making it the fourth-largest religious category); atheism and agnosticism are expected to decline, reflecting a rising toleration of religion in China, but, as societies prosper and feelings of vulnerability decline, secularism will flourish.

    Climate Change.  “If the drivers of change are largely unabated, the world of 2050 is very likely to be one faced with serious risks on a planetary scale” (p.93); as more developing countries improve their lot, “global emissions are unlikely to fall for decades to come—the best we can realistically hope for is a plateauing of emissions in the 2030s, followed perhaps by a modest decline” (p.98); discusses the foundering of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, coal vs. gas, wet places getting wetter and dry places drier, the growing number of destructive storms, the Arctic region warming twice as fast as the world as a whole, countervailing optimism (CO2 fertilization, ability of farmers to adapt), the risk-management approach, curbing methane and black carbon soot, and possible technologies to remove CO2and reduce sunlight that Earth absorbs.

     War and the Military.   Problems of failing states and jihadist terrorism are likely to be with us for a very long time; tensions will continue to rise between Shia and Sunni Muslims; cyber-warfare bestows disproportionate power on weaker states and “many of the technical developments in progress lend themselves to asymmetric approaches to warfare” (p.119); the greatest danger in the early 21st century continues to be use of nuclear weapons—the possibility of a regional nuclear war will grow exponentially unless proliferation can be slowed and then reversed.

     Democracy and GovernanceThe story of democracy to 2050 will be a paradoxical mixture: “those who do not have it will gain more of it; those that do have it will see it shrink” (p.126); “democracy” is a misleading and vague term that easily becomes a fig leaf for misgovernment and manipulation; “in the decades to 2050, a crucial question is whether the rule of law spreads and deepens” (p.134), but the rule of law is not in itself a sufficient condition for democracy.

      Taming Leviathan.   “One nightmarish vision of the state in 2050 is that of a Leviathan felled by its own weight as it struggles with the rising social burden of an older society” (p138); projections for some 30 advanced countries show age-related public spending rising by around 10% of GDP between 2010 and 2050, with health making up half of the increase; as aging pushes up the ratio of pensioners to workers, the state in 2050 will concentrate on ensuring minimum benefits while expecting the better-off to provide more for themselves.


              3)      Economy and Business

    The Age of Emerging Markets.  A new order has taken shape in the past 40 years, where developing countries have made their peace with capitalism, and now seek to attract foreign investment rather than expropriate it; by 2050, China’s GDP will be 80% more than America’s, and other members of the G7 will be surpassed by India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, and Mexico; over the next four decades, today’s upstart economies will prosper, age, and slow down: even a desperately poor economy like Bangladesh can look forward to an improved standard of living.

    Globalization and the Asian Century.  Globalization is the integration of markets across the world, and many of the forces that underpin it remain powerful; the global business landscape in the next few decades will be characterized by greater caution and tighter regulation; discusses three scenarios of “controlled globalization” (a significantly less open world than once seemed likely), “globalization in retreat” (protectionist sentiment thriving in a climate of insecurity) and “globalization sunk” (a turning away, with “disastrous” consequences for growth); the share of world real GDP accounted for by North America and Western Europe will fall from 40% in 2010 to 21% in 2050, while China’s share will increase from 13.6% in 2010 to 20% in 2050.

      Inequality: The Great Levelling.   The gap between rich and poor countries will be far narrower in 2050; “in countries where income gaps are already wide, such as America and China, they are likely to stabilize or even narrow over the coming decades” (p.182); “the narrowing of disparities between countries will be greater than any widening of disparities within countries” and, as a result, overall global income inequality “will fall, probably rather sharply” (p.183).

      Disruptive Innovation.  Schumpeter’s notion of capitalism as a “perennial gale of creative destruction” is quite relevant to the 21st century; the Internet has turbo-charged the globalization process, and capital markets are adding to the turbulence, injecting ever more uncertainty; “this turbulence will become far more dramatic in coming years” as the Internet revolution goes into warp speed (p.195); the coming decades will see the biggest revolution in manufacturing since mass production, due to 3-D printing, the “internet of things,” and advances in robotics; the emerging world will become a “cauldron of innovation” and set the pace in “frugal innovation” that cuts the cost of products dramatically.

     Market Momentum.   On various cycles in bond markets, the price-earnings ratio, demography, the price-earnings ratio, and interest rates; concludes that “it is implausible that commodity prices can keep rising for 40 years: at some point either new sources of supply will be found or demand will collapse” (p.214).


            4)      Knowledge and Progress

     Science.   Chemistry is exhausted and “the future belongs to biology” (p.219); biology will link up the fields of nanoscience and information science, and fill in the genetic stamp album similar to filling in the species on Earth; astronomy may make its greatest contribution to the field of biology: by 2050 it should be clear whether life is abundant in the universe. 

     Space Exploration.  The future of space for the coming decade will closely resemble the present reality of information gathering and intelligence, but China has ambitions of an unmanned sampling mission to the moon in 2017 and a manned mission by 2025; the promises from the 1960s of untold commercial opportunities (e.g. zero-gravity manufacturing) have proved overblown. 

     The Internet as The Web of Knowledge.  Society has been transformed by the Internet in a very short time, and faster change lies ahead as the technology improves at an accelerating pace, and emphasis shifts from the technology itself to the way it is used; the growth of information will accelerate, and we will struggle with a surfeit; according to IDC research, “the quantity of stored information in the world doubles about every two years” (p.243); “by 2020, the amount of information that needs to be actively managed is expected to grow 50-fold” (p.244); “hence it is understandable that information overload if a very real phenomenon of our times…we are being more and more swamped…(but) the tools to help us handle it are improving” (p.246). 

     Telecoms: The Death of Distance.   Cheap talk is only the beginning, and video calls on Skype, Google, or Apple’s iChat are not sufficiently reliable; Cisco and HP are developing “telepresence” technology which eventually will make its way into living room TV sets; “whereas ever cheaper voice calls and eve better video communication clearly bring people closer, it is mobile   technology that truly knits them together” (p.257); mobile technology will bring the world’s excluded closer to the global mainstream and make markets more efficient; in coming decades, more and more services will create an ever denser web of communications; but “it may be that technology creates a new type of distance between people”  and that this activity is changing our brains for the worse (p.263). 

     Pessimists Dismissed.   Conclusion by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) and former US editor of The Economist, states that “by far the sharpest lesson to draw from past forecasts is that planetary pessimism is usually wrong; the field of futurology is littered with cataclysmic prognostications that failed” (p.265); the reason that predictions of doom were wrong and will be wrong again in 2050 are that bad things are always much more newsworthy that good things, and that all scare stories assume a static response; many goods and services will be cheaper in the next 40 years (probably including energy via natural gas and solar power; old-fashioned renewables like wind, wood, and water cannot compete on price and need too much land); moreover, the world in 2050 will be “a time of extensive ecological restoration” with many re-wilded areas. 


In sum, editor Daniel Franklin sees a world that will certainly be more urban, considerably older, and more African (accounting for half of the world’s extra 2.3 billion people), although “much of this change will come with wrenching upheaval.”  Still, “there is every chance that the world in 2050 will be richer, healthier, more connected, more sustainable, more productive, more innovative, better educated, with less inequality between rich and poor and between men and women, and with more opportunity for billions of people.”  (p.xiv; italics added).



A sophisticated defense of capitalism, globalization, and free markets, driven by high technology.  “Sustainability” is not mentioned, other than the passing reference on p.xiv, cited above.  The overview of scores of trends is quite good, especially the chapters on culture, religion, warfare, and democracy.  Unlike the relatively simplistic techno-enthusiasm of Silicon Valley’s over-the-top Singularity University (Diamandis and Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think; GFB Book of the Month, Aug 2012), many problems are discussed, albeit too briefly in most instances, with the expectation that R&D and rising levels of education “will offset barriers to growth such as unemployment, corruption, environmental degradation, and social tensions arising from income inequalities.” (p.180) The Economist explanation of less inequality ahead is not convincing.  Another instance of what might be called upscale naivete is identification of information overload as a serious problem, but then moving on to briefly say that “the tools to help us handle it are improving” (p.246), not considering that the infoglut problem may well be outdistancing any tools.  There are some similarities here to the Global Trends 2030 report of the National Intelligence Council (GFB Book of the Month, Feb 2013), which is less overtly “optimistic” but also downplays many serious issues and possibilities.

For an entirely different look at the decades ahead, see 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (GFB Book of the Month, July 2012), a report to the Club of Rome by Jorgen Randers, one of the original “Limits to Growth” authors in 1972, who views the necessary transition to sustainability as bringing “the end of uncontrolled capitalism” and “the end of economic growth.”  Or consider Al Gore’s lengthy and well-researched book on The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (GFB Book of the Month, April 2013), which looks at the global economy and new technology, while also deeply worried about environmental and resource threats.  These profound differences should be debated at length and in public.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely.

Yet another very different view of the global future is provided by two Australian futurists, see the other June 2013 selection, with a sharply contrasting methodology.

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